Issue #96  11/1/2005
New Czech Photography Books

By Matt Damsker


By Vladimir Birgus and Jan Mlcoch. Published by u(p)m and KANT to accompany the exhibition of the same name held at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague and the City Gallery Prague. Newly released in English. 164 pages; ISBN No. 80-7101-032-4. Copies available from KANT by writing to Karel Kerlicky, Kladenska 29, 160 00 Praha 6; email: kerlicky@kant-books.com .

As exhibition curators and authors Birgus and Mlcoch remind us in their introduction, "Czech Photography of the 20th Century" was the "largest comprehensive presentation of the main trends, personalities, and works of Czech photography from 1901 to 2000." The result was a thorough overview that offered countless perspectives on everything from obscure photography to the familiar achievements of Josef Sudek, Josef Koudelka, Tono Stano, and others. This beautifully rendered guide, on heavy stock and with generous annotations, does justice to an ambitious exhibition on one hand, and offers a unique panorama on the other.

That's because Czech photography in general is a portrait in cultural restlessness, a chronicle of a European landscape torn between huge forces, struggling to express identity amidst oceanic change. From the German occupation of the '30s, through the liberation and Soviet domination that followed, to the late-century blossoming of true freedom, Czechosolovakia has seen it all. Its photographic legacy is an unstable mosaic of vivid experience and sensation. What begins with the pastoral dreaminess of impressionist and art nouveau photography quickly yields to the documentarianism and reportage of urban and World War I images, and then the experimentalism of modern and abstract photography, with the likes of Sudek locating the textures and random beauty of Prague, while Jaroslav Rossler and Jaromir Funke play with cubist notions, expressionist geometries, and fractured form.

Indeed, there's a certain organic logic to the perception that emerges: Czechoslovakia's jagged history is abstractly reflected in the photographic distortions of the human body that seem to predominate. Nudes tend not to be merely nudes, bodies merely bodies, or faces merely faces, but canvases of anxiety, angst, struggle and strain--from the war-torn youth captured by Koudelka to the tense muscularity of various male nudes. And female beauty is typically conceptualized as shadowy, secretive, with identity cropped out of the frame for its own protection. The psychological weight of all this is built up layer by layer in this book, climaxing with the unique elegance of Tono Stano's iconic 1992 fashion shot, "Sense," in which a stunning nude woman is rendered as a vertical serpent--head, torso, and one leg emerging from the black halves of a gown. It apotheosizes Czech photography in a single image--an image of freedom stepping out of the darkness.


Published by KANT. ISBN No. 80-86217-78-7. Available through D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, 155 Sixth Ave., New York, NY 10023. Newly released in English. Phone: 1-212-627-1999; and Vice Versa Vetried, Dresdner Str. 118, D-10999 Berlin; phone +49-30-61609236; fax: +49-30-61609238; viceversa@comp.de . KANT email: kant@znet.cz ; Vladimir Birgis web site: www.birgus.cz ; email: vlbirgus@volny.cz .

Birgus's rigor and vision in co-curating that wonderful survey of Czech photography extends to his own work as well, and this 20-year chronicle of his artistry is filled with striking, consistently edgy photos. As Elzbieta Lubowicz notes in her introduction, Birgus uses large areas of dominant color--often primaries, and often red or yellow--to create an "unrealistic atmosphere [that reminds] us of abstract paintings more than of reality recordings." And yet his images are always in touch with the grit and texture of the modern, urban world. The human figures in his geometrically flattened landscapes of intersecting planes, shadows and sun-struck color are recognizably self-absorbed, often standing or walking in relation to one another, but without narrative or emotional connection.

The result is a singular photographic strategy that celebrates random visual fact, the coloristic beauty of everything from industrial materials to blue sky, and the human form as a means of activating and offsetting the inanimate forms that press in on us. Across the beaches, tiles, boardwalks, landing strips, streets, and rooftops of cities from Moscow to Paris, Seattle to New York, Birgus makes haunting, expressive photographs that reward the eye with glancing detail, fragmented narrative and rich natural light. His tendency to capture his own shadow as he takes the picture may echo Lee Friedlander without Friedlander's wit, but in the course of 20 years, Birgus manages to not repeat himself or fall prey to preciousness. His art brings the taut, toughened Czech sensibility into a wider world of big sky, sea, and postmodern architecture--and the result is usually something we have not seen before.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published in the fall of 2005. He currently reviews books for U.S.A. Today.

(Book publishers, authors and photography galleries/dealers may send review copies to us at: I Photo Central, 258 Inverness Circle, Chalfont, PA 18914. We do not guarantee that we will review all books or catalogues that we receive. Books must be aimed at photography collecting, not how-to books for photographers.)